India’s educational divide and the myth of meritocracy

Adesh Kumar Mishra
8 min readFeb 2, 2023
Photo by Rohan Solankurkar on Unsplash

In a country like India, education is seen as a tool for social mobility. Quality education not only improves the personality of the recipient but also makes his quality of life better. This article talks about India’s educational divide and the myth of meritocracy prevalent with it.

India is a country having high socio-economic inequality where few own the majority of resources while the majority have few in their hands. According to a recent Oxfam report, the top 1 per cent in India now owns more than 40.5 per cent of total wealth in 2021 while the bottom 50% of the population (700 million) has around 3 per cent of total wealth. Since the pandemic began in Nov 2022, billionaires in India have seen their wealth surge by 121%, or INR 3608 Crore per day in real terms (Around INR 2.5 crore every minute).

Education has been a primary concern for our government since independence. Not only was education assured at the primary and secondary levels, but efforts have also been made to ensure quality education at the tertiary level. The establishment of government primary schools like Kendriya Vidyalaya, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, IITs, IIMs and AIIMS are some significant contributors to developing our human resources. Despite having such a strong educational ecosystem, the question arises why are we not benefiting?

To answer that question, let us delve deeper into the problem. Let us see the problems associated with each segment briefly -

Primary Education — As per the latest government reports, primary schools are in the majority, as 12,17,670 schools in India are primary schools, while the number of secondary schools and higher secondary schools in India is 1,51,946 and 1,39,520, respectively. The number of teachers that are actively working at present at honing the future citizens is 96,96,425. Some important statistics are mentioned below –

  • The number of students currently enrolled in schools across India stands at 26,44,49,987.
  • Enrollment of primary school students in India currently stands at 99.09%.
  • The gross enrollment ratio of secondary schools currently stands at 79.77%.

Problems –

1. Rural India does not have access to decent quality infrastructure, learning environment or exposure to opportunities that urban India does.

2. Many of the schools are facing teacher shortage, as I some cases a single person is managing a school having fifty children or more. Teachers are burdened with administrative tasks like overseeing midday meals, maintaining accounts, attendance and even election duty.

3. Often children in government schools are not well guided in terms of good and moral habits as parents are illiterate and teachers are overburdened. So, chances of getting into wrong hands are likely to them.

Higher education — Higher education remains the most challenging field in the educational ecosystem. Some data points from the AISHE report are mentioned below -

  1. . There are 1043 Universities, 42343 Colleges and 11779 Stand Alone Institutions listed on the AISHE web portal and out of them 1019 Universities, 39955 Colleges and 9599 Stand-alone Institutions have responded during the survey. 307 Universities are affiliated i.e., having Colleges. 396 Universities are privately managed. 420 Universities are in the rural area.

2. College density, i.e., the number of colleges per lakh eligible population (population in the age group 18–23 years) varies from seven in Bihar to fifty-nine in Karnataka as compared to the All-India average of thirty.

3. Total enrolment in higher education has been estimated to be 38.5 million with 19.6 million boys and 18.9 million females. Females constitute 49% of the total enrolment. • Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in Higher education in India is 27.1, which is calculated for the 18–23 years of age group. GER for the male population is 26.9 and for females, it is 27.3. For Scheduled Castes, it is 23.4 and for Scheduled Tribes, it is 18.0 as compared to the national GER of 27.1.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) in Universities and Colleges is twenty-eight if regular mode enrolment is considered whereas PTR for Universities and their Constituent Units is eighteen for regular mode.

Problems –

1. The Gross Enrolment Ratio in Higher education in India is only 26.3%, which is quite low as compared to the developed as well as, other developing countries.

2. Still, many colleges and universities in India are unable to meet the minimum requirements laid down by the UGC and our universities are not able to mark their place among the top universities of the world.

3. Increasing interference of politicians in the management of higher education jeopardies the autonomy of these institutions.

4. Most of the research scholars are without fellowships or not getting their fellowships on time which directly or indirectly affects their research. Moreover, Indian Higher education institutions are poorly connected to research centers and to industries.

5. Management of Indian education faces challenges of over-centralization, bureaucratic structures and lack of accountability, transparency, and professionalism.

Although the government is making a sincere effort to assure quality education to marginalised sections of society. There are some other factors which are responsible for India’s educational divide. I will discuss some of them briefly –

  1. Cost of education — With the coming of private players in the education sector, we are seeing that education is getting costlier, and the class divide is getting larger and larger.

As per ET Online research, the overall expenditure of schooling a child in India in a private school from age 3 to age 17 is a whopping Rs 30 lakh.

Elite higher education within India is steep as well. Enrolling in a top-rated engineering college, like one of the twenty-three IITs or any other private institution, for a 4-year BTech or a 3-year BSc, costs around Rs 4–20 lakh. Expenses for coaching for entrance exams like JEE, JEE (Main) and other exams range from Rs 30,000 to Rs 5 lakh. A top-rated management institution like one of the twenty IIMs, or any other private university in the country, costs Rs 8 lakh-Rs 23 lacks.

While some say that the education cost is nothing but the investment for assured returns. I want to ask what percentage of the population can easily make that investment. Even if we say that now education loans are easily available, we need to remind ourselves of the burden on the child who must repay the loan with interest. It will not only put him under stress, but it will also force him to take any job he is offered, no matter whether that job is a dead-end or substandard one, according to his caliber. We need to make certification affordable, not class specific or exclusive to some sections of society.

2. Role of Social capital — Not only money but social capital also plays a vital role in accessing quality education and opportunities. People from rural backgrounds or urban poor have no social capital to guide their wards to do the right thing. As the class divide in India is growing with time, so does the educational gap. While an affluent segment of society has better access to information, the lower middle class has no such facility.

3. Purpose of education — When lord Macaulay introduced the modern education system in India around 1835 AD, his purpose was simply to produce clerks who work as they told without being creative or a threat to authority.

In the twenty-first century, we need to question the purpose of education as we are an independent country, not a colony of the Britishers anymore. We do not need mindless human machines but rather innovative, solution-driven people.

Countries that made progress in the last century were driven by a technological, intellectual revolution led by independent thinkers. In India, the purpose of education has become to secure a good-paying job, showcase social status and get a good spouse. But should this be the purpose? We need to think again.

4. More focus on memorisation than understanding — Memorisation is a need that cannot be ignored, but excessive focus on it is detrimental to our understanding. A plethora of examinations that evaluate memorisation capacity force learners to cram for the examinations, are short living and rarely improves educational outcome or understanding.

5. Excessive focus on STEM subjects — “Art which makes us human.” It is art that played a significant role in the evolution of human civilisation, right from the beginning to this very date. Art also plays a significant role in developing creativity, curiosity, and innovative thinking. Our excessive focus on STEM subjects is pushing art subjects out of choice. We indeed need scientists, technocrats, and doctors but it is equally true that we need artists, sportsmen and thought leaders.

6. The mismatch between academia and the real world — Often, students ask why we are studying these things when we will not be using them in real life. Subjects like trigonometry and calculus do have their usage but for the majority, it becomes a matter of passing an exam or scoring marks. It can be said that students in their early age are not capable of seeing the bigger picture, but even if they are not able to do so it is our duty to present the bigger picture to them. If we show them how the subjects, they are studying are going to help them economically, physically, or mentally, they would be more likely to show interest.

The myth of meritocracy — Our society always had this belief that one can get everything if he is willing to work hard. But if you analyse the statistics, it says otherwise. The majority of admitted students in premier institutions are from middle-class, upper-middle, or rich sections of society. Persons from poorer strata of society hardly get facilities, guidance, or a chance to improve their luck. It is awfully hard in India to climb the ladder of social mobility; Education is a crucial way to achieve this leap but sadly it is not as accessible to them as it should be.

How many cases have you seen where a person from the marginalised segment of society had achieved something significant like getting into IITs, Civil services, etc.; probably few in lakhs. As we know, exceptions do not make the norm, but average does. So, repeating a rare success story every time we question the system is not wise. We cannot leave the marginalised segment on their own as they are also part of the country. Countries which have large divides are more likely to witness social unrest thus economic or political uncertainty.